“Throwing his body up to a great height for a moment, he leans back, his legs extended, beats an entrechat-sept, and, slowly turning over onto his chest, arches his back and, lowering one leg, holds an arabesque in the air. Smoothly in this pure arabesque, he descends to the ground…. From the depths of the stage with a single leap, assemblé entrechat-dix, he flies towards the first wing.”1 Vaslav Nijinsky could hover in the air, such was his art; such was genius.
His name is synonymous with movement, yet no moving footage exists of him performing. The images of fashion photographer Adolph de Meyer are perhaps all the crueller and more static for this. We can only imagine how Nijinsky slithered, leaped, flitted, and prowled.
We have words and pictures. Luminous pictures by no less than Jean Cocteau, Léon Bakst, and Oskar Kokoschka; and the plaster and bronze works of Georg Kolbe and Auguste Rodin; all seeking to harness the ephemeral and in turn activate, in a different medium, a little of the energetic burst that was Nijinsky. Written accounts from history, Nijinsky’s own diary (published in 1936 and partly censored by his wife, Romola), and the treasured pieces of memorabilia in collections both public and private2 can help animate his form, but it will never quite be like sitting in the theatre, seeing him become the Golden Slave in “Scheherazade.” Such was and remains, the allure of Nijinsky.
Such is our collective hunger that photographs of Nijinsky as the Faun in his own choreographic work, “The Afternoon of a Faun,” which Le Figaro famously deemed “filthy and bestial,” were recently animated by artist Christian Comte, who released teasing fragments under the banner of ‘found footage’ on YouTube. Through digital alchemy, Comte, made the de Meyer stills move and the effect, somewhat ghostly and fleeting, and decidedly wanting. But what need is there for you to press play on a digital loop when there exists John Neumeier’s beating-heart ballet, “Nijinsky”?
In the artistic director for the Hamburg Ballet’s self-professed “biography of the soul” we have Nijinsky in flight! Nijinsky the performer, choreographer, and the man himself, presented by the Australian Ballet recently in Melbourne. The narrative ballet ‘begins’ in a ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, at five o’clock in the afternoon on January 19, 1919. It begins in a reconstructed room—the last room Nijinsky was to perform in—and it makes the aforementioned ghosts of Nijinsky real. Not through aping of tradition, but through an intrinsic understanding of and fascination with all aspects of the man himself.
The role of Nijinsky calls for an understanding that cannot come solely through technical awareness, and so we have corps de ballet dancer, Jake Mangakahia, performing in the lead role. Mangakahia, from the crumpled outset, truly inhabits all corners of Nijinsky’s form. His feeling, troubled presence, an explosive revelation. Here is Nijinsky of flesh and bone, body and soul. Authentic. Introverted physicality. Accused of “a crime against grace.”3 Here is Nijinsky haunted and fragmented. And just as our collective knowledge of Nijinsky is pieced together from the loaded words and potent pictures of history, in the ballet, past collides into present, stage persona into private life, magnetism into awkwardness, fact into fiction.
Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of twenty-nine, in 1919, and much of the beauty and the sorrow of this ballet stems from the sense that I have been placed under the skin of Nijinsky, seeing the world as he saw it; from the inside looking out. Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” casts the audience front and centre, independent of the well-heeled fans of the Ballet Russes milling about the Suvretta House. Viewed through “Nijinsky’s eyes, it is the world around him—not Nijinsky that has gone mad….”4 Like thoughts and dreams, moments recalled rub shoulders with moments lived, flitting back and forth; fractured, yet ultimately linked; a cohesive whole, revealing the cutting of facets. And so we naturally begin with the last dance, with a conversation in train before the house lights dim, because no-one begins their own story with ‘I was born in….’ but rather with a cry of ‘I am.…’
Mangakahia’s silk pyjama-clad Nijinsky shares the stage with Chengwu Guo’s Nijinsky. Guo is both the spring and play of Harlequin and the delicate essence of the Spectre of a blush pink rose. And Cristiano Martino as both the rock star slink and promise of the Golden Slave and the erotic essence of a Faun leaves me wanting more. But all cannot be a light leap; Andrew Wright’s mournful Petruschka is washed black and white on the battlefield. Fighting against the will of another, Wright’s wooden limbs tragically appear to follow different orders to the heart. Nijinsky splintered not in the sense of a literal representation of ‘split personalities,’ but rather to illustrate how Nijinsky might have felt things; Nijinsky, encircled, danced to exhaustion and despair.5
History may have Nijinsky pegged as another of its beloved ‘mad geniuses,’ but to me he revealed himself to be the truest and sanest man in the Suvretta House and in turn the theatre when he called war out for the needless waste of life that it is. To the hammering brutality and haunting sorrow of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony with young boys and men as cannon fodder, then and now, when he cried: “Now I will dance the war …. The war which you did not prevent and are also responsible for,”6 who could argue otherwise? Here, Neumier’s choreography expresses the universal horrors of war, the desolation in its wake, and the tragedy of history forever repeating itself. Rifles of brass and percussion sound as soldiers’ bodies move independent of will, just like Petrushka.
From Mangakahia, hollowed-out, making a Newton’s Cradle with his beating forearms or using his whole body to move a disjointed ‘dead’ leg, to Leanne Stojmenov’s Romola, tenderly patching the pieces, I forget I am watching a performance. So too, Ako Kondo as the sister, Bronislava Nijinska, and especially as the foot-stamping, hands-to-abdomen, unguarded Chosen Virgin from “Le Sacre du printemps,” “Nijinsky” communicates on a human level, absolute. Disintegration complete, we return to the Suvretta House only to find it now mirrors the anguish of the internal world. Body and mind, and now geography, are all broken. None of the pieces can ever fit back together again, and the perfect circular chandelier, is now a halo, permanently askew.
- Bronislava Nijinska describing Vaslav Nijinsky’s Paris debut in Michel Fokine’s “Le Pavillon d’Armide,” from Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs, trans. ed. Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson (California: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), 270-271
- John Neumeier’s own extensive collection has been exhibited, in part, in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2000 to mark the 50th anniversary of Nijinsky’s death.
- Following the premiere of “Le Sacre du Printemps” Nijinsky declared to London’s Daily Mail: “I am accused of a crime against grace.” Millicent Hodson, Nijinsky’s Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction Score of the Original Choreography for Le Sacre Du Printemps, (New York: Pendragon Press, 1996), preface
- John Neumeier, “Nijinsky” synopsis, 2000; http://www.hamburgballett.de/e/_nijinsky.htm
- “The dancer is reported to have stopped in mid number and placed his hands on his heart and said, ‘the little horse is tired.’” Lydia Sokolova, Dancing for Diaghilev: The Memoirs of Lydia Sokolova, ed. Richard Buckle (London: John Murray, 1960), 407
- Brian Seibert, “Brief Candle,” “Nijinsky” programme, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne, Victoria, 2016